What will be missing from our supermarkets when the US Midwest is too hot for corn?
A new study has shown that the US Corn Belt could be unsuitable for growing corn by the end of the century.
The region in the Midwest of the country, made up of states including Nebraska, Kansas, Indiana, and Iowa, has been known for its corn harvests since the 1800s. However, due to climate change, the ideal conditions for growing corn may move further north in the future.
"Climate change is happening, and it will continue to shift US cultivation geographies strongly north," says lead author of the study, Emily Burchfield.
"It's not enough to simply depend on technological innovations to save the day. Now is the time to envision big shifts in what and how we grow our food to create more sustainable and resilient forms of agriculture."
How much corn is grown in the US?
Two-thirds of the US mainland is used for agriculture, with 80 per cent of this land used to grow staple crops of corn, soy, wheat, hay, alfalfa, and cotton. Burchfield analysed data on geography and human intervention. She used her findings to project models for how cultivation would change low, moderate and high-emission scenarios.
Acknowledging the large subsidies available for corn growers and the money being invested in genetic engineering that could mitigate risks, Burchfield highlighted the dangers of monocropping.
"One of the basic laws of ecology is that more diverse ecosystems are more resilient," she says.
"A landscape covered with a single plant is a fragile, brittle landscape. And there is also growing evidence that more diverse agricultural landscapes are more productive."
What other crops could disappear when corn does?
Less than one-tenth of corn grown in the US is directly consumed by humans, and this usually comes in the form of romanticised sweetcorn or flint corn, which is used to make popcorn.
The most common crop is dent corn which makes up the bulk of US exports - it is nearly one-third of the corn traded in the entire world.
A lot of corn is made into ethanol for biofuel, but a fair amount also finds its way into some unexpected places. So whether it’s beverages or toiletries, let’s take a look at what could be missing from our supermarket shelves when corn is gone.
Much of the corn grown in the Midwest is made into high-fructose corn syrup, one of the most common sweeteners in the world.
High-fructose corn syrup is blamed for the obesity crisis in the US but also has the honour of being a key ingredient in many soft-drinks sold around the world.
Sprite, Pepsi and yes, Coca-Cola all use high-fructose corn syrup in the recipes.Could customers around the world soon be going thirsty when the corn growing capital runs dry? We’ll have to wait and see.
A wedding and brunch staple, salmon is always favourite on menus.
While you may have romantic ideas of wild river salmon making its way to your plate, the truth is that 60 per cent of the salmon we eat is farmed.
The salmon farming industry used to be dominated by Norway, Chile, Canada and Scotland but has now spread to Australia, Iceland and New Zealand. Farmed salmon are fed on a meal of soy, wheat and corn meaning that soon we may have to find another topping for Sunday morning bagels.
While we’re on the subject of bagels, cream cheese may soon be off the menu along with brie, cheddar, and basically all dairy products.
The world’s 264 million dairy cows munch on a diet that contains corn and corn residue every day as they’re pumped for the milk which ends up in our fridges.
The average dairy cow eats over 11kg of grain mix a day. Without corn and the other staples affected by climate change we may soon be looking at an empty cheese board.
Reducing animal product consumption is a key tenet of bringing down carbon emissions, so maybe this wouldn't be such a bad thing?
In an unexpected plot twist, your bathroom cabinet may be bare once corn is off the menu.
Sorbitol, a key ingredient in toothpaste, is a carbohydrate which is part of a family of sugar alcohols called polyols. Polyols are derived from corn syrup and are the ingredient that gives toothpaste its texture, sweetness and preserves moisture in the tube.
Could climate change lead to an unexpected epidemic in poor oral health? We’ll have to read the fine print on the IPCC report to double check.
Yes, corn has even made its way into your gym bag. Corn starch, a yellow powder, is one of the components used in deodorant to absorb sweat.
As unpalatable as it may be to think about it, the link between your armpits and the Corn Belt is tighter than you think.
With global temperatures rising, will we run out of deodorant just when we need it the most? Let’s hope not.